Category Archives: Project Management

On Top of Your Game

On Top Of Your Game

Sharpen The Saw

I love the idea of being able to take some philosophical ideal and somehow apply it to my world. If it can be used to help solve real issues, remove blockers and/or present opportunities for continual improvement, then that must be a good thing. Most agile practitioners or enthusiasts have heard of the concept of Kaizen. It’s a principle from Japanese philosophy that says something like, small changes made daily add up to life changing experiences. The corollaries are many with some being stated by famous personalities over the years. One of my favourites is by Albert Einstein when he postulated; “compounding is the greatest mathematical discovery of all time”.

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Of course he’s right. Small changes really do add up, and they really can bring large benefits over time. This whole concept got me thinking, about how I might try to apply the same thing to a typical agile delivery model. What improvements might I look for that could be applied daily and that would continually improve the application delivery lifecycle? Where could I find small adjustments that are easy to understand, even easier to implement and yet  still yield measurable results over time?

There are so many elements to consider. Some are process orientated, some related to tools and yet others that were clearly about people? When I started to get into it, I realised that there wasn’t a simple answer and that like Kaizen itself, I would have to take things in small, discrete quantities, each addressing the various elements of the whole. Delivering working software would be essential to the whole thing obviously, but what are the dependencies and how can they be manipulated for the better?

In the agile delivery world, understandably there are many, many tools and processes across the full stack of any given platform, be they open source or proprietary. I decided that one way forward might be to go back to the agile manifesto and look at the 4 core values. In other words, to examine: individuals and interactions over processes and tools; working software over comprehensive documentation; customer collaboration over contract negotiation and responding to change over following a plan.

Would it be relatively straightforward to address each one with a Kaizen mind set? I wasn’t sure, but I thought that I should try to work through it by a process of inductive reasoning. My conclusions wouldn’t be guaranteed, but perhaps more common sense-based. There wouldn’t be a step-by-step guide to agile delivery heaven, but if I realised that if I could manage to change just one, small thing daily, then perhaps I might find myself on the road to agile, cumulative righteousness.

Steven Covey phrases it well when he talks about “sharpening the saw”, [1] . In his book he asks us to apply the habit to ourselves. In doing so, I think that we cannot but help apply it to our lives and our work. To keep the saw sharp is to be at the top of your game, to deliver well using the tools at hand and a winning mind set. As the New Zealand All Blacks say, “ritualise to actualise” [2].

In this blog, I will address the agile manifesto with a ‘Kaizen’/’sharpen the saw’, mind set. I will look at tools and processes, and the importance of working software. I will examine why people and interactions are at the heart of every successful delivery model and why being able to adapt with minimal fuss is still important for businesses today.

Kaizen and the Agile Manifesto

In this section I’ll aim to develop the concepts of ‘Kaizen’ and ‘sharpening the saw’ and logically extend them to the agile manifesto.

Value 1 – Individuals and interactions over Processes and Tools
In my mind and in practice, individuals and interactions are interweaved. Therefore to ‘sharpen the saw’, we must look to the core of each to properly understand what exactly can be improved. We should work to build upon the following each and every day: trust (individuals and teams); value (your relationships); authenticity (be genuine in your dealings); flexibility (to maintain a healthy work life balance); development (encouraged, recognised and rewarded) and integrity (doing the stuff you said you would do).

Processes and Tools are extremely important but they alone are pretty useless without people and interactions to wield them.

Value 2 – Working Software over Comprehensive Documentation
Ensure that the spirit of the team captures the idea of delighting customers each iteration by continually delivering working software and something of value, no matter how small. It’s hard to over-estimate the meaning of this and in my mind extends back to the individuals and interactions part of Value 1. By delivering working code, as an agile team, we accomplish many valuable achievements. We increase team morale, we build trust with our customers and ourselves. We keep our business alive by shipping products that earn revenue. Delivering working software should be a value that is at the heart of every team and we would do well do remind ourselves of that on a regular basis. Working code, means revenue!

Comprehensive documentation can be extremely important, but if we have no working software, it’s pretty pointless. Documentation should definitely not be forgotten and agile is certainly not an excuse to develop code without it.

Value 3 – Customer Collaboration over Contract Negotiation
Much pain has come from awkward or badly negotiated contracts and much of this could have been ameliorated by focusing at least equally on effective customer collaboration. Build and maintain good relationships with customers is at least half the battle of delivering a great product. Like Value 2, Value 3 also harks back to Value 1, individuals and interactions. It’s much easier and productive to collaborate than to negotiate.

Value 4 – Responding to Change over Following a Plan
Plan for change is the best way to think about this. Within teams it is a really good idea to help them understand that adapting to change quickly and with minimal fuss is not only great for efficient delivery, but also for team morale. A happy team is a productive team, is a responsive team.

I am also a firm believer in the tenet that an organisation will eventually or inevitable move into a phase of decline, unless there is a concerted effort to prepare for change; EVEN when sitting on top of a current and very successful peak.

Prototyping and the SDLC

The Prototyping Model Applied to the SDLC

Embarking on any development project in a new supplier/customer relationship can be a daunting experience for all parties involved. There is a lot of trust to be built in what is usually a fairly short time and it is sensible to select an approach that improves the chances of the project startup succeeding and progressing as planned to the next phase.

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In my experience, there is no, single, ‘correct’ method to do this, though clear dialogue and an experience with project management methodologies can help immensely. Depending on the school of thought, project type and customer requirements, any one of a number of project management methods can be employed and it usually falls to the project manager to select an approach that also best suits the needs of the business case.

One such approach that has worked well for me in the past is the ‘prototyping model’ approach to the software development lifecycle (SDLC). Software prototyping itself, of course, isn’t a new concept, but it is becoming more popular and should be seriously considered when starting-out on a new project where it is recognised that there are other risk factors involved, such as fresh partnership agreements, subjective designs and/or new technologies.

An obvious reason prototyping is becoming more popular is its relatively risk averse nature. In a short space of time, a customer has an opportunity to perform a comprehensive skills assessment on the supplier before deciding to move forward (or withdraw) with the main project. This substantially reduces cost and quality risks at the outset.

In-turn, a supplier can ascertain if the customer has a decent grasp of their product vision and an ability to specify a clear set of requirements, so the prototype partnership is usually a mutually beneficial one. If the conclusion to prototyping is that it has been a positive experience for both parties then there is good reason to remain confident in the project partnership going forward.

There are a number of benefits to prototyping which can suit either party, but one that is of particular benefit to the customer is using prototyping as a vehicle to choose between a number of suppliers who are all bidding for the same project. Again there is less risk, certainly to the customer and potentially to the supplier as well, since neither party would wish to continue with a project that has failed in its first initiative.

So really, what I am saying here is that prototyping is a cheap, powerful assessment tool, and depending on the approach could form the foundation of the main project. Code developed in the prototype phase could be reused, so the time taken to complete the prototype is not lost in the overall project timescale.

Additionally, prototyping is tool for building successful working relationships quickly and it can prove invaluable as a supplier capability yard stick. Generally speaking, a prototype SDLC model has an overriding advantage over other SDLC models since it doesn’t rely on what is supposed to happen, i.e. what has been written in technical design documentation. Instead it canvasses the users directly and asks them what they would really like to see from the product. Gradually, the product is developed through a number of iterations and addresses the needs of the users directly in that phase of the project.

The Prototyping SDLC Model

The prototyping model starts out with a initial phase of requirements gathering, pretty much like any other software development process, however, it quickly moves to development after an initial, simple design is produced. A first iteration is released and given to the customer for review and feedback and this in turn may elicit more requirements as well as alter the design and function of the application.

This process continues until the customer accepts the prototype as complete and the project moves to the next phase of development. At this point the prototype can become redundant, or it can be continued to be used as a tool for examining various design options and/or functional changes; or it can be incorporated into the project main, as it is.

Since the prototype is developed in what is largely an agile process, there is no reason that the main application cannot be developed in the same way, although purists may argue that this is an inherently waterfall approach, I would argue that any purist approach for the SDLC can cause issues and practically speaking one should adopt an approach that suits the customer and project, i.e. flexibility is key.

Prototyping – Pros and Cons

Prototyping offers a number of advantages:

1. Time-boxed development ensures a minimum viable product
2. Users are encouraged to participate in the design process
3. Changes can be accommodated quickly and easily
4. The application evolves as a consequence of a series iterations of corrective feedback loops. Generally, this leads to a much more widely accepted product
5. Defects can usually be detected and fixed early on, possibly saving resources later on
6. Areas of functionality that are missing and/or confusing to users can be easily identified and remedied

There are however a few disadvantages as follows:

1. Most models are never fully completed and may exhibit technical debt which is never fully addressed. This is especially important if the prototype is literally used as the basis for the real application
2. Documentation, if required, can be a bit of a nightmare since changes are usually frequent and can be substantial
3. There can be a reluctance within developers to change from the initial prototype design. Instilling a new design mindset can be difficult
4. If integration is required and the prototype is unstable, this can cause other issues
5. An over enthusiasm in the iterative stages can result in too much time being invested in this phase

Will it work for you?

Before you can answer that question, it will probably be a useful exercise to ask yourself what do you need to get out of the prototype and, what do you intend to do with it afterwards?

The prototype model can be exercised in a few different ways and this can have a substantial impact on the project as a whole. More often than not prototypes fall into 1, of about 4 different categories:

1. Prototypes that are meant to be thrown away after the prototype phase
2. The evolutionary prototype where iterations continue and the prototype evolves into bigger and more functional prototypes and ultimately, the final application
3. The incremental prototype which is a more modular approach. Each subsystem is prototyped and then all of the sub-systems are integrated to build the final application
4. A web-based technique known as extreme prototyping where only the web pages are developed initially and then the functional aspects are added in the final stage. An intermediate stage is used to simulate the data processing as the prototype evolves.

The technology used to develop the application could also have an impact on how development proceeds, for example with mobile apps, most IDEs have built-in simulators to help with rapid design and demonstration of the app, so prototyping is almost implicit in the overall build approach.

Whichever SDLC approach you chose, prototyping should be considered as a useful tool in application development. It can save time, cost and be an invaluable indicator as to the future success of your project. Priceless!

Try Ten Plus One Top Tips To Transform your Tech Team

Ten Plus One

Trundling (I can’t surf) over the net I’ve noticed that there’s one thing that continuously and conspicuously bubbles-up on most blogs at some point in their lifetime. Yes it’s the infamous top-N list, where N happens to be any positive integer from 1 to about 200 (and counting). The most common list seems to be the top-ten; I suppose it’s the most intuitive and it’s probably the most likely to be remembered considering most of us have ten readily accessible digits (yes, five on each hand), to help us count and assist with the retention of basic information.

I’m not against the top-ten list, that would be ‘intergerist’ or even ‘top-tenist’, I actually support the concept, but I do think that when creating a list people should try to be a little more inventive. A lot of top-tens are copies of other websites and present little or no new information. They should at least give us some entertainment value, a little bang for our buck so to speak. Whilst this can still be useful it has (for me) less of an appeal, it shows a decided lack of imagination. Consequently when thinking about how to compile my top-ten, I decided to take a different approach. First, let’s move away from the idea of having ten, a top-eleven I thought, well that would be like Spinal Tap going “one louder”, [] on their somewhat unique Marshall amplifier. OK, I’m a little tongue-in-cheek here, it’s a simple change and is evidently not going to revolutionise the top-ten list. No we require something a little cleverer than that. So, I’ve also combined my list with a little bit of word play, that is both interesting and relevant.

Since this blog is supposed to be at the very least tech-related, it makes sense to push a top-eleven of something tech-related. Rather than provide a list of my favourite software tools, my least favourite Visual Studio foibles, or even the eleven coolest things on the web (how boring), I’ve combined a very popular and current list with what I think are relevant alliterative terms to create a list that is informative and entertaining, and hopefully a tad more memorable. That’s the idea after all, to inspire some learning.

So what’s my top-eleven list about then? Well, I’m going to take a standard list of important scrum master characteristics that you might find in any scrum master job description and then rather smartly, add some relevant applicable alliterative additions (see what I mean?). It wasn’t as facile as I first figured (sorry), but it is a bit more of an enjoyable read and some of it might actually stick in your head.

There are a few things that all scrum masters should try to implement, be it physical processes or philosophical constructs; the end result should be the same, i.e. an improved team spirit, a marked increase in efficiency, happy stakeholders and sleep-filled nights.

So without further ado, buckle-in and prepare for the rip-roaring, roller coaster ride that is my guide to the alliterative scrum master, top-eleven techniques for improving your team.

1. Servant Superior
To best serve your team try to adopt the position of the ‘servant superior’, you are their team lead, but you are also there to serve them, to remove impediments and to protect them from the outside influences of (meddling) stakeholders. Additionally, you should ensure that they have good access to all relevant artifacts during a sprint and provide daily updates of the burndown.

2. Communicative Councillor
May be obvious to some, but how many times have we seen lack of effective communication be the root cause of a misunderstanding of requirements, poor design, or ineffective testing? A ‘communicative councillor’ facilitates and encourages team communication, asks questions and provides sufficient feedback to ensure that everyone on the team knows the current state of play. Additionally, stakeholders have a degree of comfort when the are regularly kept informed.

3. Facilitative Friend
The ‘facilitative friend’ ensures that all scrum rituals take place at the correct times, within the correct timeboxes and with the correct people. The friend aspect emphasises that this is not necessarily a formal approach and everyone should feel comfortable and free to voice their own opinions without ridicule during the ritual meetings.

4. Assertive Almighty
Ultimately YOU as the scrum master must be able to ensure that Agile/Scrum concepts and principles are adhered to and you must be able to be a voice of reason and authority. In summary, you should be able to make the tough calls where appropriate and rule when necessary.

5. Situationally Savvy
You should be the first to notice differences and issues as they arise and elevate them to management. Always hearing things second-hand from the team is a sure sign that you don’t quite have your finger on the pulse of development. Ensure you are up-to-date by always having an open line of communication to the team and stakeholders.

6. Enthusiastic Entity
If you can’t be seen to be a high-energy leader with the ability to enthuse the team and get them motivated then don’t step up to the role of scrum master. It’s an agile role and you need to have an agile mind to deal with it.

7. Improving Intrapreneur
The intrapreneur is a person within a large corporation who takes direct responsibility for turning an idea into a profitable finished product through assertive risk-taking and innovation. You will do this and continually strive to grow your craft by learning new tools and techniques to manage yourself and the team.

8. Fight Fixer
Where there are disagreements the you must facilitate alternatives or different approaches so that conflicts are resolved quickly and effectively. Fix fights frighteningly fast!

9. Empowering Entrepreneur
An entrepreneur is a person who organizes, operates, and assumes the risk for a business venture. This kind of spirit is great to have in a team and it is up to you as scrum master to provide it.

10. Transparent Trustee
There is a trust between the team, the product owner and the scrum master and it is your job to bring disclosure and transparency to the business about development and grow business trust

11. Discussive Dude
Discussion is vital in a scrum team to ensure that everyone communicates what they are doing and to help them understand what others are doing. Additionally, if there are problems or impediments to progress, the scrum master needs to know as soon as possible, so make sure talk to your team frequently.

“I Am Not A Number, I Am A Free Man!”

No one likes to be numbered, categorised, graded, pigeonholed, ranked, classified or otherwise grouped into a systematic or a similalry defined logical set. We’re all individuals, right? Especially ‘us’ IT, techie-type individuals. We’re as unique as virtual grains of sand on a synthetic beach, washed up by the tides of cyber-space. We like to flaunt our egoistic personalities by adopting avatars, twitter handles and pen names etc., and we do it all in the name of individualistic pursuits or anonymity on the web. We like to distinguish and uniquely identify ourselves in the blogosphere, on forums, in games arenas and chat rooms or wherever it is we may electronically hang out and virtually socialise.

Well, I have news for you. According to this article we’re ALL going to be reduced to one of only three functional possibilities;

1. Consultants
2. Project managers
3. Developers

Now that the post is nearly one year old, is it still actually the case, or was it ever the case? Do we look around our offices and see only Consultants, Project Managers and Developers? And if we do, what then? Does that mean we’re more efficient or less creative? Now, call me boring but I’m all up for seeing and utilising the differences in people, and whilst we may broadly fit into categories I really don’t see the benefit of this mundane, over simplistic approach. After all do we not already relish in shoe-horning ourselves into rather pointless categories of height, size, race, religion etc.? And where exactly has that go us?

But this is not a philosophical debate, it’s practical one and I personally think that, in the IT industry there are more roles than just Consultants, Projects Managers and Developers. I mean if we’re going to be pedantic about it, what about the role of scrum master? Granted it’s a managerial-type role, but it’s mainly a servant leader role and usually not development orientated nor indeed does it necessarily involve managing projects as a whole. The fact that people have wide and varied skills is a good thing; it allows for, and is conducive towards creative thought processes, compromising attitudes and entrepreneurial ideas. If we were all the same or even broadly the same, what a dismally boring place we would have on our hands and how pathetically bland our work environments would be.

I could write more on this here, but it might appear as a rant and I am reminded this is a blog, so let’s consider and respond to the points raised on the website mentioned above.

Consultants first then…

1. Consultants

“Lets face it, all but the largest enterprises would prefer to not to have any IT professionals on staff, or at least as few as possible. It’s nothing personal against geeks, it’s just that IT pros are expensive and when IT departments get too big and centralized they tend to become experts at saying, NO. They block more progress than they enable.”

Now, I’m not sure what world this particular writer lives in, but generally in my world if you have spent a number of years learning, practicing and becoming well recognised as an industry professional in your arena, then I believe this entitles you to a decent salary. Furthermore, as a consultant myself I am used to making the effort to say “YES” to my clients. Obviously there are times when one simply cannot achieve what is being asked, usually within tight deadlines and/or cost estimates, and at those times it is best to say “NO”, but to suggest that IT departments generally say “NO” because they have ascertained and degree of power within an company is not a point-of-view that I would willingly go along with.

Next up and commenting on Project Managers, our writer suggests that…

2. Project managers

“Most of the IT workers that survive and remain as employees in traditional companies will be project managers. They will not be part of a centralized IT department, but will be spread out in the various business units and departments. They will be business analysts who will help the company leaders and managers make good technology decisions. They will gather business requirements and communicate with stakeholders about the technology solutions they need, and will also be proactive in looking for new technologies that can transform the business. These project managers will also serve as the company’s point of contact with technology vendors and consultants. If you look closely, you can already see a lot of current IT managers morphing in this direction.”

I may not disagree entirely here, but I think that it is a gross generalisation to say that employees who remain will become project mangers. Perhaps this may be true in very large scale organisations, but in small to medium-size companies there are simply not enough positions to justify everyone moving into a project management type role. Additionally, the idea of a project manager gathering business requirements etc. doesn’t quite ring true. Most projects that I have worked on have had a dedicated Business Intelligence Analyst to do that and the idea of a Project Manager communicating technical solutions to stakeholders is also rather flaky. Usually an architect or team of architects will design and present a technical solution to a client since many IT project managers do not have either an IT or technical background and are wholly incapable of operating in this area. The role of the Project Manager in a nutshell is the overall responsibility for the successful planning, execution, monitoring, control and closure of a project. They may perform other duties, but it is unlikely that this will be requirements capture, system design or any of the usual technical functions. There are of course exceptions and I have managed projects with a number of hats on, scrum master, developer, team lead, project manger etc., but on the whole this has not been my experience in the IT world.

Finally our writer considers the Developers, a bunch dear to my heart.

3. Developers

“By far, the area where the largest number of IT jobs is going to move is into developer, programmer, and coder jobs. While IT used to be about managing and deploying hardware and software, it’s going to increasingly be about web-based applications that will be expected to work smoothly, be self-evident, and require very little training or intervention from tech support. The other piece of the pie will be mobile applications both native apps and mobile web apps. As I wrote in my article, We’re entering the decade of the developer, the current changes in IT are shifting more of the power in the tech industry away from those who deploy and support apps to those who build them. This trend is already underway and it’s only going to accelerate over the next decade.”

OK, so there are some good points here I’ll admit, especially with the expansion of the mobile app world, but I think the writer falls short of fully understanding what a revolution this has actually been. In the past the developer role was a skilled role and usually took several years to master in any given language. Since IOS, Android and Windows CE were introduced, coupled with free IDEs, mobile emulators, on-line source code repositories etc. the ability for the average Joe to create a decent application has never been easier.

Coding is no longer the exclusive right of those who can afford the software tools and with many big software vendors offering ‘lite’ or free versions of their flagship software, it really has taken the development world by storm. The writer also fails to consider the other massive revolution which had definitely taken hold last year and which continues to boom; that of course is the ‘cloud’. Just put ‘estimated cloud growth’ into Google to see what the results are. It certainly doesn’t take a monkey with two heads to figure this one out. It’s massive.

So, lessons learned?

1. Forget about generalising people, not even in terms of functionality.
2. Focus on why people are different and how that can help your business.
3. Respect talent and give credit where it is due.
4. Give project managers a break they really can be useful (OK, a bit tongue-in-cheek).
5. Stick it out with longer blogs, they can be worth it.
6. Live long and prosper.